INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Luck predictably sounds like he’s preparing to play just another game.
It’s not, of course, because everything in the NFL playoffs is magnified in importance and intensity. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback knows this. He’s experienced the highs and lows of the postseason with a 3-3 record.
If the Colts (10-6) are going to survive and advance in their AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Houston Texans (11-5) on Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium, it will take a lot of Luck.
The postseason is when the best players must produce. And while nobody emphasizes the importance of team more than No. 12, he will shoulder much of the responsibility for his team’s success. Because he missed last season due to shoulder surgery, Luck has continually smiled throughout this season. He’s enjoyed just being back in the fight, especially when the Colts won nine of 10 games to qualify for the postseason.
“I am having fun and to me that’s the most important thing,” Luck said on Tuesday. “The fact that we get to go play another game in the playoffs and see what we can do, that’s stinking awesome. I think a small part of us understands how special it’s been so far – and I said this afterword, fulfilling. I feel this season in a sense – every game has been fulfilling. But satisfied? No, not at all.”
Colts fans remember the three-time Pro Bowl passer's finest hour in the playoffs, when he led his team back from a 28-point, third-quarter deficit to a 45-44 AFC Wild Card home win over Kansas City on Jan. 4, 2014. Luck completed 29 of 45 passes for 443 yards with four TD passes and three interceptions. The signature moment was when Luck scooped up a fumble and dove into the end zone for a score.
A popular snapshot of that touchdown inspired someone with a flair for photo shop to add a cape to Luck as he made that memorable dive. That’s apropos because Luck is the Colts’ Superman.
Perhaps even more impressive was Luck leading the underdog Colts to a 24-13 win at Denver against Peyton Manning in the AFC Divisional playoffs the next postseason. Luck completed 27 of 43 passes for 265 yards with two TDs and two interceptions.
But the next playoff game, Luck’s last postseason appearance, was his worst experience as a pro. We remember the “DeflateGate” fall-out from the Colts’ embarrassing 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC title game four years ago. Many forget that Luck completed just 12 of 33 passes for 126 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Coaches reiterate that it’s a team sport, that one man can’t do it all. But that game illustrates how a team doesn’t stand a chance if its best player is off his game.
The Texans matchup is favorable for Luck in many respects. He had his two best games of the season against Houston, including a career-high 464 passing yards in September’s home overtime loss. When the Colts won 24-21 at Houston in December, Luck’s triumphant return to the area where he went to high school consisted of 399 passing yards and two scores.
Colts Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has had some of his best games against the Texans, especially in Houston, where in seven starts he’s caught 41 passes for 933 yards and seven TDs. Hilton has been hobbled by a sore ankle for a month, in which he’s practiced just twice, but he’s still the hottest wide receiver in the league with 951 receiving yards since Week 8.
If Hilton is physically unable to replicate past performances, that makes life more difficult for the visitors. But Luck has thrown TD passes to 13 different targets this season. He’s flourished in this offense devised by first-year head coach Frank Reich, one predicated on getting rid of the ball quickly and spreading it around.
That’s especially important when considering the Texans have arguably the league’s best pass-rushing tandem in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Watt has 12 sacks in 12 career games against the Colts. But a key reason Luck has shined with 4,593 passing yards and 39 TDs (the latter second in the NFL) is because of an offensive line that allowed just 18 sacks, fewest in the league.
An improved Colts defense led by NFL leading tackler Darius Leonard will have its hands full trying to contain Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who in his second season has 4,165 passing yards, 26 TDs passing, 551 yards rushing and five more run TDs. And Texans Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins had his best season with a career-high 115 catches for 1,572 yards and 11 TDs.
Watson will be playing in his first NFL playoff game. He’s not yet experienced the highs and lows like Luck. The Colts certainly hope that’s a factor, as well as a shaky Texans offensive line that has allowed 62 sacks.
But make no mistake about it, if the two-point underdog Colts are going to pull this off, it will be because Luck makes enough key plays and delivers when it matters most.